Thursday, 27 October 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 51, Palm Beach Chariot

Two people have their images forever imprisoned in this postcard, condemned to an eternity of circulation through the broad boulevards of mid-century Palm Beach. On the left is a man whose face bears some resemblance to that of the great Chicago bluesman, Howlin’ Wolf. Impassive and dignified with just a flash of the defiance that was ever present in the voice of Howlin’ Wolf. On the right is a female face that gives away virtually nothing – the eyes squint against the sunlight, the lips slightly parted in an unreadable smile. The story is that when the oilman and railroad tycoon, Henry Flagler, developed Palm Beach as a resort, he autocratically banned the use of horse-drawn or motor vehicles, giving rise to these cycle-mounted wicker chairs that were propelled by employees of the local hotels. In another cultural context this might look like a colourful image of a novel method of transport devised for the entertainment of tourists and as a source of income for the locals. But in the context of the United States in the pre-Civil Rights era it expresses some deeply insensitive attitudes to race and ethnicity. It may be less abhorrent than the postcard genre of demeaning and patronising ‘picaninny’ imagery but it remains a distinctly unsettling picture even after the passage of more than 50 years.

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